After two days of driving nearly 1800 miles from Reno, I arrived in Joplin on Thursday evening. It was a long drive, but was fairly easy, with no weather except for some fog around Cheyenne, WY.
Friday morning, I headed down to Missouri Southern State University (MSSU), which is the main rally point for volunteer efforts. Relief teams are being managed by AmeriCorps and the United Way, and most of my work so far has been with the AmeriCorps teams out of St. Louis and Denver. The first day I didn’t know what to expect, so I wore work boots and a long sleeve flannel shirt.
However, for my first day of volunteering, I spent all day in an air conditioned office space at MSSU. I was answering calls for the Missing Persons hotline, taking new reports entering them in a database that is then sent to search and rescue teams. It was probably the most exhausting day of office work I had ever done, not physically but mentally. It was part clerical work, part grief counseling. Some reports were by immediate family members (who were often the most distraught people I talked with), but since this was 5 days after the storm, most of those reports had already been filed, and most of the reports I took were from out of state old friends and relatives who had not talked to the missing person in months/years, and had no way of getting in touch with them except for a phone line which may or may not have existed anymore. I felt better knowing that most of these reports would be resolved successfully; that most of the people were alive, despite the large death toll already.
Overall I didn’t like the work, but the supervisor said I had a natural talent for it, and asked if I could be called on to do it in the future, and I agreed. So I will probably be back there in the future.
Saturday morning at 7:30AM, I reported for field work in the disaster zone. By the time we boarded busses, there were probably about 1000 volunteers on the lawn. I met a few people and we boarded a bus, which took us into the disaster zone. Our team of about 15 people were stationed on Pearl St, between 24th and 25th. This was a residential area on the east side of the street, with an elementary school’s field and playground on the west side of the street.
Our job was to sort through debris on the front yards, sort them into tree wood, lumber/roofing, metals, and other, and put them into piles on the curb for dumpsters to later pick up. We did not enter any of the homes, for safety and privacy reasons. All of the homes had markings spray painted on the front wall, indicating if it had been searched by rescue crews, if gas had been turned off, etc.
Most of the homes on this block were recognizable as homes, as opposed to the complete devastation seen in other parts of the zone. Three, sometimes four walls were still standing on the first floor of each house. However, it was only the first floor of each house; I later found that most of the houses either had a second floor or a livable attic, all of which were completely gone.
We found very few personal effects on the lawns. This was 6 days after the tornado, and most families on the block had already been back to sort through the debris themselves. Those we did find were handed over to the team leader, which gave them to the Red Cross for later identification. We even met with a number of homeowners, who happened to be there that day meeting with insurance adjusters. From what I found talking with them, it sounds like everyone survived on the block, but it was only due to them being older houses with brick construction. If they were newer wood frame houses, they would be completely gone.
Our cleanup efforts were hampered a bit by a large chain link fence that was running the length of the yards, laid on the ground. When we first got there, we assumed it had been laid down after the storm, either as a mental deterrent against looters or that they intended to raise it later as a more solid deterrent. We later found out that the fence was originally on the other side of the street, surrounding the school’s playground, and the tornado broke it off the poles and neatly deposited it on the other side of the street, across the entire length of the block. We found a few poles on that side of the street, but no poles were still standing in their original locations. The school itself was completely destroyed.
So most of the day was spent hauling wood and other debris from the yards to the curb. We had several chainsaws and dismantled a number of large trees which were uprooted. No trees on the block were left standing by the tornado.
The extent of the damage on that block didn’t really hit me until I got home later in the day. See, what we saw was major damage, but in trying to mentally reconstruct the block while we were on the scene, I pieced together that even before the tornado, this was an old, low-income block. The sort of area where old, beaten up cars would be on the lawn anyway. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the street through Google Street View that it hit me. This used to be a pretty, well maintained street, with lots of shade area and good looking houses that looked fairly modern, despite their age.
We did good work and got a lot done, but this was still one side of one block, a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds/thousands of blocks that were destroyed. I got home after about 6 hours in the field, covered in dirt and fiberglass (including my arms; I had forgotten to wear a long sleeve shirt that day).
Today I took a day off. I knew there would be a lot of people volunteering today (partly because of the president’s visit today), and I’m going to try to give myself a day off per week. I’ll be back tomorrow though. Tomorrow (Memorial Day) notwithstanding, I imagine people will be needed the most on weekdays.